Many women today are under the impression that Epidurals are perfectly safe with no risks or side effects on mom or babies, and there are many providers out there who will not take the time to help educate mothers to the contrary. So I thought I would put together a post about epidurals and the risks and benefits for mothers and their babies. Now before I start, I just want to get it out there that with both of my children, I had an epidural. The first time I was not aware of any of the risks or side effects, and the second time I labored naturally for around 24 hours before getting the epidural to help allow me to sleep. Being a benefit to me. I needed to “re charge” so I could again focus on what was important and that was getting my baby here. Unfortunately the experience ended in a cesarean section, but I did not have to go through getting an epidural, waiting for it to work, and then possibly having it not work once we were in the operating room.

If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have had an epidural either time, but third time is a charm right?

According to the website for the American Pregnancy Association, some of the benefits of epidural anesthesia include:

  • Allows for rest in prolonged labored (As was my case)
  • Relieving the discomfort of childbirth can help some woman have a more positive birth experience
  • When other types of coping mechanisms are not helping any longer, an epidural may be what you need to move through exhaustion, irritability, and fatigue. An epidural may allow you to rest, relax, get focused and give you the strength to move forward as an active participant in your birth experience.
  • If you deliver by cesarean, an epidural anesthesia will allow you to stay awake and also provide effective pain relief during recovery
  • And in most cases, when using epidural anesthesia compared to other types of pain relief, you will remain more alert and aware of what is going on.

But like everything in life, there are risks. According to the website for the American Pregnancy Association, some of the risks of epidural anesthesia include:

  • Epidurals may cause your blood pressure to suddenly drop. For this reason your blood pressure will be routinely checked to make sure there is adequate blood flow to your baby. If this happens you may need to be treated with IV fluids, medications, and oxygen
  • You may experience a severe headache caused by leakage of spinal fluid. Less than 1% of women experience this side effect from epidural use. If symptoms persist, a special procedure called a “blood patch”, an injection of your blood into the epidural space, can be done to relieve the headache
  • After your epidural is placed, you will need to alternate from lying on one side to the other in bed and have continuous monitoring for changes in fetal heart rate. Lying in one position can sometimes cause labor to slow down or stop
  • You may experience the following side effects: shivering, ringing of the ears, backache, soreness where the needle is inserted, nausea, or difficulty urinating
  • You may find that your epidural makes pushing more difficult and additional interventions such as Pitocin, forceps, vacuum extraction or cesarean may become necessary
  • For a few hours after birth the lower half of your body may feel numb which will require you to walk with assistance
  • In rare instances, permanent nerve damage may result in the area where the catheter was inserted.
  • Though research is somewhat ambiguous, most studies suggest some babies will have trouble “latching on” which can lead to breastfeeding difficulties. Other studies suggest that the baby may experience respiratory depression, fetal malpositioning; and an increase in fetal heart rate variability, which may increase the need for forceps, vacuum, cesarean deliveries and episiotomies.

There are also some things that their website does not touch on such as the increased risk of cesarean section due to stalled labor, or epidurals causing labors to become prolonged. The problem with this is, today in most hospitals there are strict time limits on the amount of hours a woman can labor. If you exceed, 12, 18, or even 24 hours in some cases, you are looking at a vaccum assisted delivery or even a cesarean section for something that has become very common called ‘failure to progress” which is what lead to my first cesarean section, after a short 6 hours in labor. Yup, you heard it folks, I was induced for 6 hours before being wheeled off to the operating room.

Some of the other commonly untold risks, taken from Kim James Website, birth doula, include…

  • Prolonged 1st stage of labor
  • Increase of malpresentation of baby’s head
  • Increase in the need for pitocin augmentation
  • Prolonged 2nd stage of labor
  • Decrease in the ability to push effectively.
  • Increased likelihood of an episiotomy
  • Increase in cesarean section delivery (50% Increase at 2cm, 33% Increase at 3cm, 26% Increase at 4cm, After 5cm there was no difference)
  • Urinary Retention that can lead to postpartum bladder dysfunction
  • Hyprotension (drop in blood pressure as earlier stated)
  • Itching of the face, neck and throat
  • Postpartum headaches (which I experienced very badly after the birth of my second child. I could not leave my bedroom with the curtains drawn without my head pounding uncontrollably.)
  • Maternal Fever (Sometimes blamed on the woman’s waters being broken too long instead of the epidural itself)
  • Feeling of emotional detachment
  • Inability to move freely on your own

Then we cannot forget the risks to your baby… which include :

  • Fetal Distress also known as an abnormal fetal heart rate
  • Drowsiness at birth
  • Poor sucking reflex due to the anesthesia (which can directly impact breastfeeding)
  • Poor muscle tone or strength in the first hours of life
  • Low Apgar scores

Be sure to become educated yourself before consenting to any kind of medical intervention during labor, you may not get all of the information that is available to you!

Information for this blog have come from the following websites:

American Pregnancy Association
Medical Risks of Epidurals

Kim James

Danielle A. Elwood is a Connecticut native, born and raised on the Connecticut shoreline in the Lordship community of Stratford. The Wife of a Veteran Marine, and mother of two small boys, Camden and Benjamin, she works heavily in the pregnancy and birth community, as well as the local shoreline parenting community, all while active as the head of a local nonprofit organization called ICAN, which provides support for mothers who have had cesarean section births. She is a doula by trait and hopes to become a midwife some day. For now she wants to help reach as many mothers as she can through ICAN and education. You can follow Danielle on Twitter @BirthBabiesBlog